Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978
More Articles Browse All Articles >>

You are in:  Reading | Toddlers and "Interactive TV" - Are Video-Based Toys Good for Your Child?

Toddlers and "Interactive TV" - Are Video-Based Toys Good for Your Child?

By Ann Orr, Ed.D., Assistant Professor,, Eastern Michigan University

I recently had the pleasure of babysitting a friend’s one year old son. I say “pleasure” because it truly was blissful to spend the afternoon with that captivating child—a walking, talking bundle of curiosity whose exploration of the environment was continuous and purposeful. In the first few moments after Mom’s departure, the goal-directed pursuit of novelty began. First, he introduced himself to my little dog by grabbing old Riley’s tail and giving it a good tug. Next, the “man-on-a-mission” emptied my trash bin under the desk and “read” some nearby magazines, tearing out interesting articles he no doubt planned to peruse later. Then, he was on to the bathroom for the next objective, unrolling all the toilet paper from the roll. Now some of you might think there is very little pleasure to be found chasing a whirlwind like this, but I assure you, I laughed all afternoon, especially when I handed the fearless explorer back to his mother!

Although my own children are older, I well remember those days of late babyhood through the toddler years. You can’t take your eyes off them for a second-- everything is fair game to be climbed, mouthed, opened and dropped. This unending exploration of the environment is the essence of learning at this age; it’s all about movement, touching, reaching, seeing hearing, tasting, smelling, interacting with the physical environment. Knowing this fundamental truth about babies and toddlers, I struggle with the current trends toward “jumpstarting” development with videos or toys bent on making your child smarter. I admit to waxing nostalgic for blocks and stuffed animals, busyboxes and wooden pounding benches. I remember my oldest child spending great lengths of time as a one-year-old, simply emptying a box of little plastic shapes one by one, handing each to me and then waiting for my “thank-you” before reaching in to grab the next one. Then, we played the game in reverse, her first lesson in turn-taking. Yes, lessons for the Diaper Set happen all the time, so why be concerned with the latest crop of gizmos and gadgets meant to teach Baby her letters, numbers and first words? Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy who needs to wake up to today’s fast-paced, technology-infused world where kids, a.k.a. “Digital Natives” take in all their new information via pixels and audio.

The latest craze in the toy aisles are “systems” that transform your heretofore passive TV into an interactive experience. These devices have been around for awhile, but have only recently been targeted at infants and toddlers. Typically, there’s a breadbox-size plastic base unit that plugs into your AV ports on your TV, or connects via wireless signal. Then, there’s a controller of some sort that the child is to manipulate in order to make things happen on the TV screen. The systems come with DVDs or cartridges filled with games, songs and interactive video designed to capture children’s attention and teach them cause and effect, colors, shapes, and more. So far, so good, right?

QuoteTurns out, not all is rosy with these systems. After spending a good amount of time with three of these products, I have come away with more concerns than kudos. The first two, LeapFrog’s Little Leaps Grow-With-Me-System and Vtech’s V.Smile Baby Infant Development System, are direct competitors designed for children aged nine months to three years. In terms of hardware, the Little Leaps system has the advantage with its wireless connection to your TV. (There’s something not quite right about pairing wire with babies….). Simple and successful installation of this product depends on having a compatible DVD player. The Vtech unit is somewhat easier to set up, and easy to use. Sadly, its poor quality graphics and less than appealing interactive content pales in comparison to the Little Leaps system. The third product, LeapFrog’s Leapster TV Learning System, connects to the TV through cables like the Vtech product, but is designed for 4-8 year olds, an age range I am more comfortable with when considering a TV-related toy. Because it uses Leapster cartridges, there’s a vast library of content already created, but the low-res graphics are disappointing.

The lessons learned from my exploration of these systems are as follows:

IF you are going to purchase a TV-based interactive toy for your baby or toddler, look for:

  • Wireless systems (no cables for baby to chew on!)
  • Durable parts that will withstand pulling, dropping and mouthing
  • High resolution graphics - kids deserve better than grainy or blocky images
  • Developmentally appropriate content that will “grow” with a child. Begin with simple cause and effect activities and engaging songs and progress to colors, shapes and basic concepts like “big” vs. “small”; “over” vs. “under”
  • Quick responsivity - as soon as the child pushes a button or moves a lever, something significant should happen onscreen
  • Expandability - you’ll want more content than what the base unit comes with. How many more DVDs or cartridges are available and how much do they cost?

The real question is SHOULD you buy a TV based interactive toy for your baby or toddler? Do we really want our youngest children sitting in front of the television any sooner than they already are? One recent national study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that one-year-olds were already watching 2.2 hours of TV per day; three to five year olds watch an average of 3.3 hours each day (Zimmerman & Christakis, 2005). Further investigation revealed "modest adverse effects of television viewing before age 3 years on the subsequent cognitive development of children." According to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, children younger than 2 years should not watch television at all (

But what about our beloved Sesame Street, Barney, and Blue’s Clues? Don’t they teach important concepts to our children? You might want to wait until the kids are of preschool age. An extensive series of research studies with two-year olds has identified a clear pattern when it comes to toddler’s learning by way of video watching. In every case, two year olds learned concepts more readily from human interaction than by watching a video (Barr & Hayne, 1999; Decampo, 2004; Decampo & Hudson, 2005; Hayne & Simcock, 2003; Krcmar, Grela, & Lin, 2004;  Schmitt & Anderson, 2002; Troseth, Saylor, & Archer, 2006). Now the manufacturers of these TV- based systems will argue that what they are offering isn’t passive video watching, but interactive learning because the children are manipulating the toy to make things happen onscreen. But ask yourself this question—do you want your child learning by interacting with televisions or people?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am pro-technology, a geek wannabe, and a worshipper of the nerd next door who can fix my Internet connection in the blink of an eye. As a former Senior Editor of Children’s Technology Review, I spent eight years up to my eyeballs in children’s interactive media, so I know and respect high quality technology for the magnificent learning opportunities it makes available to children. But that’s the operative word….”children”. Not babies…..not toddlers. Let the preschoolers play with the interactive TV systems; let the toddlers play with the box.


Barr, R., & Hayne, H. (1999). Developmental changes in imitation from television during infancy. Child Development, 70, 1067–1081

Deocampo, J. A. (2004). A new paradigm for testing dual representational understanding with different representational demands. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 64, 4652 (UMI No. AAI3105440).

Deocampo, J. A., & Hudson, J. A. (2005). When seeing is not believing: Two-year-olds' use of video representations to find a hidden toy. Journal of Cognition and Development, 6, 229–260.

Hayne, H., Herbert, J., & Simcock, G. (2003). Imitation from television by 24- and 30-month-olds. Developmental Science, 6, 254–261.

Krcmar, M., Grela, B. G., & Lin, Y.-J. (2004). Learning vocabulary from television: Toddlers, Teletubbies, and attention. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Schmitt, K. L., & Anderson, D. R. (2002). Television and reality: Toddlers' use of visual information from video to guide behavior. Media Psychology, 4, 51–76.

Troseth, G.L., Saylor, M.M.. & Archer, A.H. (2006). Young children's use of video as a source of socially relevant information. Child Development, 77 (3), 786-799. 

Zimmerman, F.J. & Christakis, D.A., (2005). Children's television viewing and cognitive outcomes: a longitudinal analysis of national data. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159(7): 619-25


Don't Miss
What Makes a Good Software Game for Children?
Parents are desperate to find software games that spark inventive play while also expanding their children’s minds. I’ve spent the last decade of my professional life pondering the question, and recently an analogy occurred to me that I think captures the difference between rich and impoverished gameplay. It boils down to the difference between a game of Scrabble and a spelling bee.

Media Management: 10 Simple Tips
Managing children’s media diets – the content and its accessibility - is as important as making sure they eat healthy balanced meals.


Share This

Teaching Kids to Enjoy Reading

Award-Winning Books

Article Archive

Sign Up
Our news & features delivered to your inbox.